My Whitney Awards ballot (and predictions)

First I wasn’t and then I was a Whitney Awards voter. I’m very glad that I hopped on the bandwagon — even if it did mean that my March was a blur of reading and even if I didn’t enjoy reading every single finalist. Before I get to my ballot, etc. a few pieces of housekeeping.

1. My comments on any awards finalists are based on either PDF files supplied to Whitney Awards voters, books checked out from the library or in one case a review copy (The Undaunted) and in one other case a thank you copy (No Going Back).

2. My standard conflict of interest disclosure applies: I may or may not have loose-to-very close ties to a few or many of the authors and publishers involved in the Whitney Awards as well as the Whitney Awards Committee.

3. Here is a link to my GoodReads reviews of each of the finalists I read. Please note that my GoodReads reviews are more from the perspective of a reader than a critic; I do not review with a consistent format or mindset (in fact, I go out of my way not to); and all reviews are a snapshot of my reaction to the book within 24-48 hours of reading it — my views inevitably change over time.

4. Because my status with The Whitney Academy is as a literary critic, I don’t feel bad about my sharing my votes or about making predictions. It probably isn’t appropriate for publishers, booksellers and authors to make their votes public. Until I fit in to any of those categories in a meaningful way, I plan on being open with my votes. Also note that what I write below is not meant to be the or even my final word on the novels. I’m going to accentuate positives because these are awards — but all of the finalists that I have read have some issues with them, and, of course, none of them will work for all readers.

So with all that out of the way, here we go. I’m going to use a Should Win (e.g. my vote), Will Win (my lame armchair analysis) and Also Worth Checking Out format for the three categories I voted in. If my dying iPaq cooperates, I may also tackle the Mystery/Suspense category at a later date even though voting has closed.

Speculative Fiction

Should Win: Servant of a Dark God by John Brown combines deft world-building and patient storytelling with excellent character development. In particular, the inner journey of the main character as he discovers that the ideology he though he knew and believed is completely counter to the one his family believes in is very well done (and yes, it does require some patience in the unfolding). In addition, Brown writes excellent, exciting action sequences where you can actually understand what’s going on AND he never gets overly squishy with the magic system. Too many modern fantasy writers go vague and glossy on the action and the magic (especially the big bads). In the end, Servant of a Dark God is the novel out of the five finalists that I have thought the most about, have the strongest desire to re-read, and has the most ambition. It deserves to have those qualities rewarded.

Will Win: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson seems like the odds on favorite to me (although Wells’ novel below is a dark horse). First, it’s Sanderson (meaning the Mormon spec-fic author with the top cred these days). Second, it’s Sanderson (which means you are going to get a compelling, inventive magic system). Third, it’s Sanderson (which means it’s got some complexity and some humor but doesn’t make the reader work too hard and has enough sex and violence to maintain street cred, but not enough to really offend). I enjoyed it every much, but Fourth, it’s Sanderson (which means that as well crafted as it is, it [like his previous efforts] still lacks just a bit of soul and grit — if he can work that out, he’ll be the best of his generation).

Also Worth Checking Out: I am not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells is a compelling novel that surprises in its humor and humanity. It surpasses the Dexter-for-the-YA-set label that most easily describes it.

Historical Fiction

Should Win: In the Company of Angels by David Farland combines his well-honed skills as a writer of action and quest and character development with a rigorous, sensitive approach to what is a very complex, difficult even in LDS history — the Martin and Willie Handcart companies journeys and rescues. Farland pours the myth, the history, the loaded emotions, the socio-cultural and theological issues in to just about as good of a narrative as you are going to get with this sort of thing. The more I think about it, the more I am impressed with how Farland balances the demands of story and faith. It’s richly Mormon in a way that few works of LDS/Mormon literature are. It’s also very modern, reflecting that lovely blend of scientific knowledge, historical accuracy, acknowledgment of humanity and mortality but also insistent belief in miracles and the hand of the Lord that latter-day Mormonism supports and is often to be found among us post-culture wars cosmopolitan Mormons (that’s perhaps too strong a way of putting it — but I’m struggling here to describe why it struck such a chord). This is the vote that I’m most confident in.

Will Win: In the Company of Angels by David Farland is so much better than the other novels in this category — not only as a readable novel — that I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s going to win in spite of the slight tinge (again, Farland handles the difficult emotions around this event very well, imo) of not-100%-faith-affirming (even though in the end, it very much is — it’s just faith affirming AND human) as well as the scandalousness of self-publishing.

Also Worth Checking Out: The Undaunted by Gerald Lund surprised me. Yes, it needed to be 400 pages in length instead of 816. Yes, I didn’t completely buy the conversion and saw the romantic solution coming from a mile a way. And it stalls in to pouring in of the historical facts in places. But I was surprised to find that a) Lund can write compelling characters and b) he’s willing to resolve doubt in subtle ways — yes, the doubts still get resolved. But it’s not quite so blatant as I had been led to believe.

General Fiction

Should Win: No Going Back by Jonathan Langford brings with it some difficulties to my voting, not the least of which is the fact that Jonathan and I are friends and that I blurbed the novel. Going in to my reading, I was very willing to entertain (in fact, a part of me was hoping to be wowed by) the other two serious candidates (for me, I don’t know how well the rest of the Academy is receiving Noehren’s novel) in this category: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Gravity vs. the Girl. More on those two novels below, but when it came right down to it, in spite of the fact that they have stronger litrary voices, Langford’s achievement, especially considering that it’s called the Whitney Awards, surpasses the rest of the novels in the category. Don’t be fooled by the workmanlike style and somewhat standard coming of age plot — Langford has balanced (and executed) the elements that need to go in to a groundbreaking work of Mormon fiction like this very well. I don’t think you automatically get points for courage for writing a novel about same sex attraction in a Mormon setting. I do think, though, that if you can produce a success, especially one that, if people give it a chance, has the potential to reach and help a fairly wide North American Mormon audience, then that success needs to be rewarded.

Will Win: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is the odds on favorite here. It’s perfect, middlebrow, reading group fluff with the veneer of being about history and issues and all that. And that’s the problem I had with it. It comes across to me as shallow and lukewarm. This novel would have benefited greatly from either upping the literary quotient or going a bit more genre-exciting and deeper world-building.

Also Worth Checking Out: Gravity vs. the Girl by Riley Noehren will turn some people off because, frankly, it’s just a wee bit twee. But only a bit, and if you can either get past (or like me adore some) of the Gen X-ness (you know, the joys and stupidity of dating drummers, Vespas and the sarcasm and self-deprecation), you’ll find that, at heart, it’s a lovely, touching story about a woman facing her past (literally — she is always speaking to the ghosts of her-selves) and putting her life back together after an emotional breakdown. It’s also very, very funny and very modest — not really anything to make you blush here even though it technically falls in to the chick lit category. Or in other words, Noehren is not Elna Baker. And for this novel, that’s a good thing. I’m very pleased that it was named a Whitney Awards finalist.

ALSO:For more of my thoughts and commentary by others on the Whitney Awards finalists, see these excellent Segullah posts:

12 thoughts on “My Whitney Awards ballot (and predictions)”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with one of your predictions, and concur on several of your other reviews. I can’t say more than that at the risk of the public appropriateness you pointed out in your disclaimer but very much appreciated your thoughts. There were some very exciting novels this year, if not for story alone for the new ground they covered–it says a lot about the present and future of LDS writing.

  2. Thanks, Josi. I will also add that although I gave some low marks on GoodReads to the Covenant authors, reading the novels didn’t depress me at all about the state of LDS/Mormon fiction and there were a few moments that I really liked in those novels.

    I do think that I’ll do much better with the Mystery/Suspense novels (which means, that, yes, if I can revive my iPaq or borrow a copy, I will be reading Lemon Tart). I ended up focusing on the Historical Fiction category because I had access to The Undaunted, but after speculative and literary fiction, my reading preferences tend towards mysteries.

  3. The problem there is that while they may be anonymous to the general public, they wouldn’t be anonymous to whoever ran the site (e.g. IP addresses) even if they used fake e-mails. You all can trust me, but even so, I think it’s better to let the end results speak for themselves. If we had a much larger pool of authors, it might be an interesting experiment, but that’s not really the case here.

  4. Great reviews, William. I wish you had been able to read all the categories, because I would have enjoyed your thoughts on those as well.

    I guess I agree that it’s not appropriate for authors/publishers to comment publicly. Sigh. But it feels kinda lonely to be one of only a few people who make their favorites public. I wish there were more bloggers reading and picking their favorites and commenting. I think it would give the whole process more buzz, and also make those of us who do predict a little less conspicuous.

  5. I admit that I started reading both Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Gravity versus the Girl. Unfortunately, the month of March was hideous for me from a work perspective, and I didn’t finish either of them — and therefore couldn’t have voted anyway. (Oddly enough, there is no rule against an author voting in a category where he/she is a nominee, though in some ways I kind of like that. I also like the new rule that you have to agree that you’ve read all the nominees in a category in order to vote.)

    I’ve been a book reviewer a lot longer than I’ve been a writer, so reading those books, I started thinking about the kind of review I might write about them. And I realized quickly that it would be *very* odd.

    I will say this: I don’t think I would have known that either of those books was by an LDS writer if I hadn’t encountered them in the Whitney Award context. This, of course, is quite fine. Still, I have to wonder. Did both writers deliberately exclude LDS material? Or was it simply that the story they wanted to tell went in a different direction? I’d love to see an interview with both authors here at AMV, and I’d love for that to be one of the questions that’s asked.

    Someday I *will* read the other novels in this category (including finishing these two), if only to know what other books were opposite mine this year. And William, I agree that I’d love to see your thoughts on the other categories, too.

  6. Just to clarify: The “oddness” was the thought of reviewing a book that was against mine in the awards. Writing a review under those circumstances would certainly have been very odd. Certainly I would have had to dislose my personal investment… See, though, this is the thing: The community of Mormon letters is small enough that if we all avoided potential conflicts of interest, we wouldn’t *have* a community anymore. Nor many readers and reviewers, sad to say…

  7. .

    I would have posted had I finished anything, but I didn’t. The Whitneys may provide the impetus to buy a dedicated ereader, though. Would have this year, could I have afforded it.

    Jonathan—are you volunteering to do the interviewing? Because it sounds like a good idea to me. You should totally do it.

  8. i’m interested in your comments on Servant of a Dark God – i’ve been thinking of giving it a try, and you’ve convinced me it would be worth it.

    and I agree that No Going Back should win for other than just the “courage” factor. readers will probably be talking about that book for a long time, well after Bitter and Sweet is a shadow in the wind.

  9. Emily:

    Thanks and — agreed.


    I think with Noehren and Ford, it’s not just a matter of direction, but also audience. Ford, in particular, has been hugely successful (I read some of the book, for example, while my wife plundered the Easter aisles at Target). I suppose one could make the pitch for Mormon elements in Gravity vs. the Girl, but even though it’s contrary to my normal inclinations, I think Mormon stuff would have just gotten in the way of the story she had to tell (and especially because of the particular conceit of the novel). What makes it particularly LDS, imo, is that it has the attitude and references points and subject material and humor that it has in the genre that it is without the language and sex reference. It’s like a really cute, hip black dress that just also happens to wear well over garments. Or something like that. That’s a sexist analogy, but it’s the best I can do. Modest but hip — you know what I’m getting at? Anyway…

    BTW, Theric did do an interview with Riley last year although it was more focused on indie publishing than her novel.

    And speaking to the conflict of interests part: if any non-regular AMVers who are also writers or editors are drawn to this post because of the Whitney Awards angle, poke around and if it seems like we’re even semi-compatible in terms of interests and tastes, drop me a line. I’m also up for increasing the number of conflicts of interest I have in the world of Mormon letters.


    Servant of a Dark God does start slow. I personally feel that the slow build pays off. There are readers out there who don’t.

  10. I enjoyed your insights on the Whitneys, and thank you to everyone who takes time to build up the Whitneys by reading and blogging about them. I agree that as an author, it’s problematic for me to comment publicly on other authors’ books, unless the comments are very positive. Some authors do well at reviewing other authors’ books, but I’m lousy at it. Unless I loved the book–or liked enough about it that I can make my comments sound very positive–I’d rather just say nothing. I’m too conscious of how much bad reviews can sting, and I can’t bring myself to do that to someone I might be sitting next to at the next writers conference. So though I do have strong private opinions, I’m completely worthless as a reviewer. Catch me off the record, and if I trust you, I’ll tell you what I really think 🙂

    As far as the Whitneys, my safe, vague, general comment 🙂 is that I was impressed with the books this year. There were some I didn’t care for because I didn’t like the story or genre, but even so, I felt that they were well written overall. There were only a couple of books (I read 28) where I felt like the writing itself was lacking a bit.

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